The year 2012 may seem far away but politicos know the next presidential election cycle comes all too fast. No one is embracing this more than Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty who, in recent weeks, has made a beeline for the national stage again, most recently at the Republican National Committee meeting in San Diego.
Pawlenty first became known to the country last year when his name landed on the designated “shortlist” for John McCain’s VP pick. But it wasn’t meant to be. A senior staffer muttered to me begrudgingly at the Republican National Convention on the eve of Sarah Palin’s memorable speech: “He wanted a woman. He got one.”
Oh, how the campaign of change changed things. Less than a year after her run for Vice President, Palin stepped down from her spot as Alaska’s spunky Governor, citing family and work difficulties. Pawlenty, on cue, stepped up. Recently the South St. Paul native said he would forgo the use of his worn veto pen for a third term, leaving his calendar and political future wide open. Since then, he’s been traveling the country from Washington, D.C. to Aspen, Colorado, talking about everything from healthcare to education. Last week he was elected vice-chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, a spot which will do double-duty for Pawlenty’s future. While he stumps for the nearly 40 GOP campaigns, he gets free media and a chance to bolster his image while testing the waters.
Though Pawlenty’s actions are paving the way — or at least leaving an opening — for a run for president, some pundits are already brushing him off because he’s too “vanilla” to occupy such a position. Couple this with his relative anonymity, and some doubt the hockey-playing, marathon-running son of a truck driver has what it takes to build rapport with an already weary GOP, much less undecided voters.
Despite his lack of magnetism, his track record as a conservative governor in a purple state is impressive. At the end of this last legislative session, Pawlenty demanded his Democrat-controlled legislature balance the budget or he would. Not only had Democrats passed budget bills that left a $3 billion gap in income and expenditures, but they wanted to increase taxes on their fellow Minnesotans on everything from alcohol and music downloads, including income taxes for every bracket.
Pawlenty outwitted his big-spending legislators and exercised an obscure law on the books that enabled him to remove any state spending for which funding doesn’t exist. In Pawlenty’s last major achievement as governor, he balanced the budget and finally removed Minnesota from the dreaded list of top ten most highly-taxed states. Talk about going out with a bang.
In fact, a recent SurveyUSA poll said 34% of Minnesotans now identify themselves as Republicans, the largest percentage since 2005, where 35% did. While some credit the shift to Obama’s disastrous healthcare plan, it makes as much sense that after two terms of Tim Pawlenty, his constituents finally see the advantage of conservative ideals put into action.
Pawlenty’s already touting his achievements and taking his candid conservatism on the road. He recently told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto Obama was “scamming the American people” with his healthcare plan. In this op-ed in the Washington Post last week, Pawlenty picked apart the President’s plan and encouraged Democrats in Congress to look to the way he reformed healthcare the conservative way in Minnesota. Such straight talk is customary to the Minnesotans he represents; Pawlenty is more Everyman than elitist. Such unpretentious manners may prove appealing to some audiences, especially by 2012, when the sparkling, uber-exclusivity of Obama’s image cannot rescue his failing policies.
Is Pawlenty conservative enough? While he tends to hold a tough line on taxes, he shows on a softer side on issues like mass transit, education, and the environment (especially global warming). He favored a 75-cent cigarette tax — he claimed, with the agreement of the Minnesota court system, that it was a “user fee” — and even advocated a statewide smoking ban. And Pawlenty overrode his normal free-market tendencies to support the importation of price-controlled prescription drugs from Canada.
But Pawlenty is clearly going for a test drive on the road to the White House. Republicans looking for an economic and social conservative who can win over Democratic voters might decide to kick the tires too.